As WWI Raged 100 Years Ago, Northeast Ohio Became a Hub for Immigrants

Flower girls welcome returning soldier, January 1919.  Photo: Western Reserve Historical Society
Flower girls welcome returning soldier, January 1919. Photo: Western Reserve Historical Society
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Cleveland was the sixth largest city in America in 1914. Its industrial might was attracting people from all over the world looking for good jobs. Thirty-five percent of its population was foreign born. In Akron, 19 percent were born overseas. Most Americans did not want to enter the war.

One reason, says Dr. John Grabowski, an historian for the Western Reserve Historical Society, is that they had ties to both sides.

“We had strong economic relationships with Germany. We had extraordinary relationships, intellectual, medical training, chemistry and so forth, with Germany. Yet there is a great deal of Anglophilia in the United States. And so England who was still for many the mother country. That’s conflicted because you had people rooting for both sides. Not all Irish immigrants but many Irish immigrants were not in favor of Great Britain winning the war.”

John Grabowski, Krieger-Mueller Joint Professor in History CWRU, Western Reserve Historical Society (photo Urycki/ideastream)

Some immigrants went back to fight for their mother country. At first, Americans started questioning the loyalties of certain ethnic groups, including those whose homelands had been swallowed up by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For instance, Grabowski says, France and Germany were both promising the Poles an independent nation of their own.

“What Clevelanders and other people in the United States discovered is that there were national aspirations of these people, says Grabowski.

"They did not want to be part of one empire or another. This is after the United States and Cleveland get into the war, you begin to see Croatians, Slovenes and Slovaks -- they’re looked at sympathetically as people who have been under the yoke of central European oppression.”

President Wilson had kept the country out of the war but after Germany stepped up attacks on American ships, the U-S declared war in the spring of 1917. That year the American Ambassador to Germany, James Gerard, made this speech aimed at American immigrants.

“Everyone had a right to sympathize with any warring nation, but now that we are in the war there are only two sides. And the time has come when every citizen must declare himself American or traitor.”

Once the U.S. entered the war, Cleveland city schools dropped German language classes. The city of New Berlin changed its name to North Canton. Conscientious objectors like the Amish were harassed. And after Socialist labor leader Eugene Debs gave a speech in Canton urging men to resist the draft, he was convicted of sedition in federal court in Cleveland and thrown in jail.

Some immigrants from the Central Powers countries had to carry alien identity cards in order to walk near certain important industries like steel plants in Cleveland.

But business? Things were looking up for many Cleveland companies that had already been selling materiel to Europe since the beginning of the war. White Motors made some 18,000 trucks for the allies. Machine tool company Warner & Swasey made binoculars for the navy and began work on the very first Tommy gun.

Historian Ed Pershey of the Western Reserve Historical Society said the region was simply poised to produce what was needed for wartime production.

“So when the war breaks out, all of those companies, particularly companies like Warner & Swasey, Sherwin Williams, the steel industry…We had a large industrial component in manufacturing of clothing in Cleveland. And those firms went into producing uniforms for the military."

Northeast Ohio industry also got a boost from Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. He was the former Mayor of Cleveland, and he tapped area business leaders he knew to help supply the army.

“So we had some people very much involved in coordinating the war effort in Washington, D.C. in World War I. Again, it makes sense because Cleveland was such a large industrial city with a lot of industrial know-how, and the nation needed to tap that expertise.”

But the flow of immigrant labor that once ran the factories was cut off by the war. So women were called on to become train conductors and factory workers.

And, says John Grabowski, companies started looking south.

“When men went off to war and immigrants weren’t coming in, not only did you have migrants coming in from the Deep South, but you had Appalachian migrants. If you’re looking at Akron, the rubber capital, a lot of migration from West Virginia and southern Ohio.”

World War I also marked the beginning of the Great Migration northward for African Americans. TV host Robin Roberts of ABC’s Good Morning America mentioned in Akron recently that her great-grandfather in Alabama was recruited by Goodyear to move to Akron during the war.

“And this is a universal story, not just of my family, but there are many -- the coal mines, when they started drying up, there were families from West Virginia. I think the mayor was talking about that’s how his family came to Akron. So it’s a really great American story on how this area of the country was built through manufacturing.”

That migration caused the black population of Cleveland to quadruple between 1910 and 1920. After the war, Congress passed legislation to restrict immigration -- particularly from Catholic and Asian countries. But by then, Cleveland had grown to become the fifth largest city in America, the highest ranking it would ever achieve.


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